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Israel’s internal ‘dysfunction’ ranks high in think tank’s annual risk analysis

War against Hezbollah, Iranian nuke are atop list of threats facing Israel, according to the Institute for National Security Studies, but societal issues come in a close third

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside of his official residence in Jerusalem, on January 2, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside of his official residence in Jerusalem, on January 2, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While a potential war with the Hezbollah terror group and Iran developing a nuclear weapon remain the most significant threats facing Israel in the coming year, internal conflicts and governmental dysfunction have become the next greatest danger facing the country, according to a leading Israeli think tank’s annual risk assessment released Wednesday.

This was the first time that domestic schisms — or “internal and multi-system dysfunction,” as the report’s authors described it — have beaten out external threats in the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies’ yearly analysis, which it presented to President Reuven Rivlin.

According to the think tank, these domestic issues came to the fore in the past year with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting the researchers who wrote the report to rank the divisions the third most serious threat facing the country.

Rivlin accepted the report’s findings and called for the government to work on restoring public confidence in it and to address the “baseless hatred” between different segments of Israeli society.

“There is a pressing need to revive the trust between the citizens of Israel and the state. That trust was damaged in the past year — seriously, maybe even critically,” Rivlin said.

The head of Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank Amos Yadlin, left, presents President Reuven Rivlin with the organization’s strategic assessment for 2020 at the President’s Residence on January 6, 2020. (Chen Galili/INSS)

This appeared to be a reference to the repeated rounds of elections due to various political parties’ inability or unwillingness to form a coalition, breakdowns in the government, and the politicization of the management of the coronavirus pandemic.

“For the first time since INSS began its annual public scale of threats, experts have ranked the internal challenge as one of the three leading threats to Israel’s national resilience and security,” the institute said.

In 2020, the third-ranked threat facing the State of Israel according to INSS was a war in the Gaza Strip.

According to the institute’s assessment, Israel’s national security — in terms of external threats — is in relatively good shape going into 2021. The Israel Defense Forces has built up sufficient deterrence against Hezbollah, Hamas and Iranian proxies in Syria that these groups are unlikely to intentionally initiate conflict with Israel, though there is a real possibility that fighting could break out anyway due to a miscalculation or misunderstanding, the report said.

The big war

The INSS warns that a “First Northern War,” against all Iranian proxies and allies combined in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, represents the greatest military threat facing the State of Israel. The think tank said it is for this war that the IDF must prepare itself and judge its readiness.

“The COVID-19 crisis has not reduced this threat’s severity and urgency. This year, Israel will again have to maintain its resolve to continue proactive operations to weaken the Iran-led Shiite axis to prevent it from constructing and strengthening military fronts close to Israel,” the think tank wrote.

One of the most significant aspects of this threat is the effort by Iran and Hezbollah to manufacture precision-guided missiles, an exponentially more serious challenge to Israel’s air defenses than the simple rockets currently under Hezbollah’s control in Lebanon. Currently, Hezbollah is believed to possess hundreds of these missiles. Israeli defense officials have called the wide-scale production of these weapons the second greatest threat facing the country, after a nuclear weapon.

The location of a Hezbollah arms depot next to a gas station in the Janah neighborhood of Beirut, as stated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 29, 2020 (Courtesy)

“The hundreds of precision missiles possessed by the Iranian axis, particularly Hezbollah, capable of causing large-scale damage in Israel and paralyzing critical military and civilian systems on the home front is a strategic threat, and Israel must devise a strategy to arrest further development of this threat,” INSS wrote.

The think tank recommended a mix of strategies to combat this threat of precision-guided missiles: continuing to conduct strikes in Syria to both thwart specific efforts to transport these weapons into the area and to maintain deterrence; improving the military’s air defense systems; and conducting preemptive strikes against these capabilities if necessary.

Nuclear Iran

Despite Iran’s announcement this week that it was beginning to enrich uranium to 20 percent — a small technical step away from the 90% enrichment needed for nuclear weapons — the INSS said there was “little likelihood” that Tehran will produce a bomb in the coming year.

At the same time, the institute’s experts — mostly former IDF, Mossad and defense officials — recommend that Israel prepare for the possibility that a “credible military option” will be needed to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb in light of US President-elect Joe Biden’s stated intentions to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 in favor of a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. Though the nuclear accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had some supporters in Israel, most Israeli defense officials saw it, at best, as weaker than it could have been and, at worst, as granting international legitimacy to the Iranian regime and its nuclear program.

This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

“The change in the US administration and President-elect Biden’s entry into the White House require Israel to find ways of conducting dialogue and exerting influence that will alleviate the risks of a potential return by the US to the faulty nuclear agreement,” the INSS wrote.

The Tel Aviv think tank recommended extensive coordination with the United States should it resume negotiations with Tehran to ensure the best possible deal and to combat Iran’s malign influence in the region in general.

INSS said a new nuclear agreement with Iran must include a “substantial extension” of the JCPOA’s so-called “sunset clauses,” the time limits at which certain sanctions on Tehran are lifted if it has abided by the terms of the deal. It also advocated for a more robust inspection regime and limits on Iranian research and development.

“At the same time, a credible military option against Iran should be maintained, and an understanding reached with the United States on the conditions for taking military action to thwart Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon,” the think tank said.

The problems at home

The government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized from the start as being based more on partisan consideration than public health, with politicians making the decisions instead of less-biased civil servants.

To prevent such issues in the future, the INSS recommended moving the management of the recovery to experts and professionals in various government offices.

The think tank also called for the formulation of an annual budget, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far failed to pass for both 2020 and 2021, and for the rapid development of an economic plan “giving priority to investment in civilian items, disadvantaged groups, and the middle class.”

Illustrative: Parliament members vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 11, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Upon receiving the report, Rivlin noted that the elections due to be held in March will be the country’s fourth in two years as well as the last he will preside over, as his term ends this summer.

“Assuming the [coronavirus] health threat is removed from us soon — and I hope it will be — Israeli society will quickly needed a stable, functioning government that will first and foremost handle restoring the economy and the market, addressing societal gaps and the schism — the great rift in Israeli society, between one man and his neighbor,” Rivlin said.

He added that if such a government is not formed, the Knesset and its members will need to take on a greater role in running the country to supply “a legal or political solution to getting out of this ongoing crisis.”

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